Née Iosef Hechter, Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945) was a Jewish Romanian prose writer, playwright, journalist, and lawyer who left us chilling testimonies of the milieu leading up to and spanning World War II, which Sebastian survived at great emotional cost, only to be killed by a truck in 1945.
Women appeared in Romanian (as Femei) in 1933, a year before the publication of his roman à clef For Two Thousand Years. Written in Paris, where Sebastian studied law between 1929-1931, and finished while he was also working on the novel Fragments from a Notebook, Women strikes a particular note in that, unlike Sebastian’s other works from the 1930s, it concerns itself primarily with love. Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years and parts of his Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years (published posthumously) document the rise of antisemitism in the 1930s and the increasingly perilous position of Jewish intellectuals in Europe. In these works Sebastian chronicles the erosion of humanity he witnesses during this interbellum period which, ironically, is known to many Romanians as the “golden age.”
The intellectual fervor of the 1920s had gained Bucharest, Romania’s capital, the title of “little Paris,” or “Paris of the East,” and a delectable taste of that is not missing from Sebastian’s work. However, as detailed in the Journal and in the diary entries in For Two Thousand Years, by the beginning of the 1930s Sebastian found himself increasingly alienated and ostracized, often by the same intellectuals he had counted among his friends only months earlier. Turned fascist sympathizers, they made Jewishness grounds for questioning Sebastian’s humanity and Romanian-ness. One case in point was philosopher and professor Nae Ionescu, one of Sebastian’s mentors whose dramatic shift in attitude was reflected in the preface he wrote in 1934 for For Two Thousand Years, in which he made a theological argument for antisemitism. Sebastian had requested the preface three years earlier, in 1931.
In Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years, Sebastian continues to record, this time without fictional “veils,” how far-right sentiments reshape public discourses and personal relationships through World War II. Whether reflecting on the desolation he experiences seeing friends gravitate toward the extremist Iron Guard, on the pogroms of Bucureşti and Iaşi and the unabated fear of deportation, or on the solace he finds in classical music, the voice of the journals remains composed and lucid, sometimes tempering dread with humor. It is not necessarily because the act of writing absorbs and transmutes outrage and despair, but because writing alone makes sustaining a semblance of normalcy possible.
Reading Women against the backdrop of these other writings layers the experience. According to Camil Baltazar, Sebastian confessed to writing the novel “only on sunny days,” so as “to rest,” “with long breaks, without a work plan, undisciplined” (qtd. in Stancu 356).1 Stancu, Simona. “The Narrative Art in the work of Mihail Sebastian.” Cultural and Linguistic Communication 3:4, 2013. 354-362. The composition appears to have provided him with a much needed respite from the tensions of an increasingly hostile political and social climate. To invest your creative energies in exploring love in its various permutations requires faith in humanity. In this sense, Women is a momentary stay against desolation.
This is not to say that Women lacks the profound insights of Sebastian’s other writings. At 186 pages, the novel might feel at times thin, but its psychological forays provide plush texture. The novel instantiates love’s gradations and echoes. Infatuation, erotic hunger, deception, seduction, dependency, passion, and rationality collide and/or coexist, as does the need to desire and to be desired. The narratives spare no reader at least some degree of self-recognition.
The four sections, similar to a symphony’s movements, weld fast and slow tempos, surges of emotions and lilting intervals. Women follows Stefan Valeriu, a young Romanian who, as the novel opens, has finished his last medical exam in Paris and is now decompressing at a retreat in the Alps where three French women – Renée, Marthe, and Odette, who give the first section its title – capture his interest, just as he, un nouveau jeune homme mysterious enough to pique curiosity and encourage flirtation, captures theirs. The women differ in many respects including age, attractiveness, independence, and poise, and he finds each desirable for reasons not exclusively romantic or sexual. What these three fleeting relationships seem to have in common is that they test his understanding of himself and his own desires.
The novel proceeds more or less chronologically, with Paris of the 1920s as the main backdrop for memories centered on three other women—Émilie, Mado, and Arabela. This is a novel of observation and Proustian introspection, a quick tour de force into the lives of women as seen by Stefan, whose perspective we access directly or, as in the case in the opening section, through an omniscient narrator. When, in section two, we hear Stefan’s own voice, he is an observer rather than pursuer, with the love between the ill-fated Émilie and Stefan’s countryman Irimia stealing the spotlight. In the concluding section, we are brought into the intimacy of Stefan’s life with Arabela, a woman who makes him “abandon [his] vocation as a vagabond in love from [their] first moment together” (145). A “genius as a homemaker” (154) and sincere to a fault, she seems to be the antithesis of what he has desired in previous relationships and also, perhaps, the revelation to what he has been seeking. In Arabela, plainness coexists with mystery in the most natural, undramatic way. Though she has a “weak, flat voice, slightly off key,” when she sings it is “as though she were drawing back heavy curtains and opening a doorway to a world of dreams” (173). Her “earthy voice” channels the “weariness of her soul” (173) with something akin to duende.
Section three complicates the architecture of the novel in a number of ways. It takes us to Romania, though Stefan’s presence here is recounted only indirectly. Addressed to Stefan, this epistolary section is in the voice of Maria, a close Romanian friend. A woman with a room of her own and whose greatest pleasure is to return to her interior life in the evening (108), Maria responds here to a love declaration (Stefan’s) that, she fears, has altered the tenor of their friendship and created “an unnecessary complication” (92). Her justification of her commitment to the snobbish, unfaithful Andrei reveals her as a sophisticated negotiator of desires and societal conventions. Maria is the only female character whose views on love are conveyed directly and in this respect she is a sophisticated counterpart to Stefan. A subtle craftsman, Sebastian does not include a response from Stefan, thus allowing Maria’s perspective the singularity it deserves.
As the character of his own fictions, Stefan is neither dislikable nor entirely sympathetic. To his credit, he invests a significant emotional and intellectual energy in attempting to understand the women in his life. Shaped almost in equal measure by wit, existential angst, genuine curiosity, and a mix of insecurity and bravado, his views of women are as humanly flawed as he is. For instance, he elates in his “private victory” of winning Renee’s affection effortlessly, but his satisfaction over the conquest bothers him deeply. Émilie, for whom he feels compassion but not attraction, occupies a large portion of the narrative because in retrospect he feels guilty for “heedlessly” (68) passing her by, without making the effort “to understand a little about [her] heart” (68). The woman he comes to love, Arabela, he only fully appreciates retrospectively. While making a life with her he is too vain not to be embarrassed by this love.
In Stefan, Sebastian gives us a narrator who is haughty and cynical, exposed and self-deprecating, and always observant and introspective. He subjects relationships to scrutiny with the precision of the doctor he aspired to become and briefly did before trading this career for stints as government official and cabaret pianist. His alert and honest observations are reminiscent of those of Sebastian’s other, more political and polemical works. Granted, Stefan’s concerns could easily strike as shallow compared to the unnamed narrator-character of For Two Thousand Years; however, he is similarly committed to probing human psychology and risking both love and solitude to make sense of oneself and, insofar as possible, others.
To deliver in English Women’s original tenor and the precise inflection of Stefan’s and Maria’s voices requires skills few translators possess. Philip Ó Ceallaigh translated also Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years (published in the U.S. by Other Press in 2017 and in U.K. by Penguin a year earlier). An accomplished writer born in Ireland, he has lived for over two decades in Romania. His superb attention to craft and intimate knowledge of the cultural and historical milieu of Sebastian’s writing is evident in his translation. He renders fluently and with all the necessary nuance the distinctive interiority imprinted in Stefan’s voice and the flavor of the historical period, including idiosyncratic affectations (“If you allow me the pleasure, let me choose a book for you” ), and the cosmopolitan pulse running through some of the characters’ speech acts (subtly signaled, for instance, by the preservation of some remarks in French). If translating is an act of profound listening, Ó Ceallaigh has mastered it.
Sebastian, Mihail. Women. Translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh. Other Press, 2019.